When Jessica Balsley, a former teacher in Iowa, sought PD opportunities several years ago, she couldn’t find good courses in her content area. “I was having a hard time finding anything relevant to art teachers.”

So she took to the Web and created those opportunities. Her website, The Art of Education, started as a blog, but it now offers online classes, workshops, and conferences to art teachers everywhere.

Kristine Murnane, an elementary teacher on Staten Island, found that the training courses offered at her school often weren’t relevant to her. “Sometimes on professional days, I had to attend PD on teaching middle school, but I’m not a middle school teacher,” she says.

Murnane now prefers to fulfill many of her required professional development hours online, learning about topics that interest her.

That’s the beauty of the Internet: Instead of spending your PD sessions poking at stale bagels and discussing irrelevant topics, you can curl up with your laptop and seek out training that matters to you.

Don’t know a MOOC from a webinar? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.


What is it? MOOC stands for “massive open online course.” Several thousand students participate at once, learning through posted videos or readings. They demonstrate their knowledge through assessments that are either peer-graded or graded auto-matically. MOOCs are typically free, although sometimes students can pay to receive a certificate of completion or course credit.

 • Pros: Full-length classes for free! Also, some MOOCs are taught by big-name faculty members from prestigious universities.

Cons: High student attrition rates. No instructor feedback.

• What you should know: Although you won’t get face time with a MOOC instructor, that doesn’t mean you have to learn in isolation. Julia Stiglitz, a former teacher who manages teacher PD programs for the MOOC outlet Coursera, says she’s taken online PD in the past that felt “solitary,” but that Coursera classes are designed to be different.

“Interactivity and the social component are core to what we’re offering,” Stiglitz says, adding that students can ask one another questions in online forums “any time of night” and that the average response time is 22 minutes. “In some ways, it’s more connected and more responsive than what you might get otherwise.”

•  What educators are saying: Nancy Bynum, a science teacher in Rogers, Minnesota, says she learned “tons” from a Coursera class for new teachers, even though she has been teaching for about 30 years. Bynum appreciated the collaborative approach and didn’t miss having access to a course instructor, noting that “we’re all instructors” in a teaching class. “It’s like having hundreds of teachers all over the world at your disposal,” Bynum says. “It’s genius.”

Traditional Online Course

 What is it? While it may be funny to see the word traditional used to describe online classes, they have been around for a while. In these smaller online courses (as opposed to MOOCs), students typically receive feedback from an instructor, discuss readings and videos on message boards, and write papers or complete project-based assignments.

•  Pros: Often leads to graduate-level credit. Connects teachers with colleagues from across the country in their content area or grade level.

• Cons: Hefty time commitment. Can be expensive.

• What you should know: There are plenty of factors to consider when choosing an online course, including cost, reputation of the institution, and workload. But many teachers say they most value collaborative learning and project-based assignments that they can apply to their practice in
the classroom.

•  What educators are saying: “It’s not just sitting in front of a screen and hitting next,” says Tim Taylor, senior director of operations and professional development for PBS’s education division, which offers online classes. “By the end of the course, you’re walking away with lesson plans or some project you can walk into the classroom and do.”

Don’t expect a class to be a cakewalk just because it’s online. “It was a ton of work,” says Angela Rago, an art teacher in River Grove, Illinois, who got her master’s degree through an online program at Boston University. “But I got through it, and I learned so much. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Social Media

What is it? Trading ideas, links, and resources via sites like Edmodo, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

• Pros: Free. Flexible.

Cons: Unstructured. No opportunity to earn PD hours or graduate credits.

• What you should know: You don’t need to sign up for an official class to learn online. Teachers use Edmodo, an education networking site, to form professional learning groups centered around specific topics. Site marketing manager Lucia Giacomantonio says each group is “like a self-guided course” that allows teachers to learn at their own pace.

• What educators are saying: Denise Tanaka, a middle school teacher in South Pasadena, California, says she frequently trades tips on Facebook with teachers in other districts. “We bounce lesson ideas off of each other, or link to a site that’s helpful.”


What is it? A webinar (the word is a combination of web and seminar) is an online presentation, lecture, or workshop. A presenter will typically talk to the online audience about a specific topic, and the audience usually sees either slides or a video feed.

• Pros: Short and focused. Often free.

• Cons: Many lack an interactive component.

• What you should know: The success of a webinar depends on the presenter and the topic.

• What educators are saying: Try to choose webinars with detailed descriptions so that you’re very clear on what you’re signing up for. “I’ve picked some thinking they looked engaging,” says Murnane, the Staten Island teacher. “Then, it’s either things you already knew or it just wasn’t what you were looking for.”

“Look at who is involved,” says David Hargis, director of content development for ASCD. “Are they just there to sell you a widget? Or are they there because they understand the needs of educators?”

Online Conference

• What is it? Hundreds or thousands of teachers connect online for a day of professional development.

Pros: The ability to learn about a wide array of topics in a single day—without the hassle and travel expenses (not to mention administrator buy-in!) required to attend a conference.

Cons: It’s a lot of time to spend in front of a computer screen. Some charge a fee.

• What you should know: All conferences are run a little differently, so learn more about their format before you sign up.

What educators: are saying Balsley, founder of The Art of Education, opted to keep sessions to 10 or 15 minutes when she designed her online conference for art teachers. “You didn’t get to go as deep [into] the topic, but teachers got to hear from 20 presenters in five hours,” she explains.

Denise Tanaka, the South Pasadena teacher, recommends you make the most of an online conference by e-mailing presenters after the sessions. “If you can’t get to a real [in-person] conference, it’s great,” she says.


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